My Chickens Make My Compost

7_close-up-of-humus-notice-its-soil-and-small-chipsI have found composting to be a persistent challenge, and I have yet to successfully produce a pile of nicely composted material for my garden. Over the last 6 years I’ve tried the square bale method, the 4 cubic yard regularly turned on schedule approach, the enclosed 3-bay compost bin, and one of those plastic gizmos that’s supposed to do all of the work for me. I even tried keeping worms under one end of the kitchen counter; in fact, I tried it twice! And, yes, I’ve received plenty of advice from friends and I’ve read countless articles guaranteeing me the easiest, most absolutely fool-proof compost pile ever, but nothing I have done has produced a useable result.

For awhile I believed I would never have compost. I thought I’d never be able to properly recycle the organic waste we produce, and never properly recharge the earth that gives us our sustenance. It was not a scenario I liked to contemplate, and it was not a sustainable model; but for awhile it seemed to be my destiny.

But then fate intervened – in the form of chickens.

dsc_0006It started when we decided to keep an egg flock. I built a large hen house and an enclosed, roofed-over run because we have very bold marauders in our country hills and chicken-keeping neighbors up and down our lane were constantly complaining of losing their free range birds. Well, I think I should save money on the deal if I’m going to produce my own eggs, and I can’t see how having to constantly replace chickens could do anything other than new-chicken-coops-runincrease the cost of my eggs. So I opted for contained, very well protected chickens; but I wanted to imitate free range, too, because that makes for healthier chickens and more nutrient-dense eggs.

After a lot of research, I made the hen house with a raised wood floor, on which I spread 8-12 inches of wood shavings in the “deep litter” method. Over the course of a year I periodically add more shavings as the old break down, and two or three times in the year I remove the heavy deposit of chicken droppings that collect under the roosting pole. Other than that, it gets no attention until springtime.

dsc_0007Every spring I clean out the house, wash it down, and refill it with new shavings. The collected shavings go into a pile for the summer – with the heavy chicken droppings I’ve been periodically collecting mixed thoroughly in. It ages through the hot season, and then in late fall, as my fruiting bushes go into dormancy, I spread most of those shavings around my fruit bearing bushes, and mix the rest of it with homemade humus to feed my fruit and nut trees, and to enrich my herb garden.

Settled year-old chips in the run ready for harvest.

Settled year-old chips in the run ready for harvest.

4_curious-birds-checking-out-my-work

The residents examine my equipment

The homemade humus comes from the chicken run. The run is another deep litter system, this one filled every fall with about a foot of untreated wood chips spread over a critter-proof barrier of ½” wire mesh carpenter’s cloth. Over the course of the following year, everything that would go into a compost pile gets tossed into the chicken run where the birds eat what they will, and work what’s left into the chips. The chips (my “brown” material) are enriched by garden weeds and spent plants, as well as everything biodegradable from the kitchen (my “green” material). That includes vegetable ends and peels, coffee and tea leavings, spoiled food from the refrigerator, egg shells, meat bones and trimmings, fish byproducts, and literally anything else that won’t hurt the birds. Of course, the birds also constantly excrete their own high-nitrogen contribution to the process.

Screening out the larger pieces

Screening out the larger pieces

Sifted humus

Sifted humus

In place of the typical compost most gardeners add to their organic gardens, I use my chicken run humus, which looks and feels very much like the earth of a wild forest. Like more conventional compost, it builds the water holding capacity of my clayey soil and restores the nutrients that nurture the following summer’s crop of organic heritage vegetables.

New bed of chips; good for another year.

New bed of chips; good for another year.

For me, chickens have proven to be the fool proof composting system I’ve been looking for…and they provide us cheap, beyond organic eggs in the bargain. It doesn’t get better than that!